On July 16th, President Donald Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in what is shaping up to be a highly anticipated – and highly controversial – bilateral summit. The meeting agenda is full of strategically vital topics, ranging from Russia's interference in the 2016 elections (and its anticipated meddling in the upcoming U.S. midterms this Fall) to the Kremlin's ongoing campaign of aggression against Ukraine. But as concerns the Middle East, the most important subject to be discussed by the two leaders is undoubtedly Syria.
So far, in a fashion not so different from its predecessor, the Trump administration has stopped short of articulating much of strategy toward the seven-year-old Syrian civil war. Rather, America's approach to the conflict has been largely subordinated to two other regional priorities.
The first is the fight against the Islamic State. Rolling back ISIS's self-declared "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria was a core campaign promise of candidate Trump during the 2016 elections, and since taking office his Administration has redoubled America's investments in military operations against the terror group.
The results have been pronounced. At the height of its power in mid-2014, ISIS controlled a territory roughly the size of the United Kingdom, and held some eight million civilians under its sway. Today, its proto-state in Iraq and Syria has been almost completely demolished, and U.S. officials now assert that they are "very close to reaching an end state against the caliphate." Nevertheless, preserving those gains will depend on how successfully America and its coalition partners can prevent a resurgence of ISIS on Syrian soil in the future.
The second is isolating and pressuring Iran. President Trump's decision this Spring to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action set the stage for a new, comprehensive strategy to roll back Iran's regional influence. That approach, outlined in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's May 21st speech on the subject, includes a commitment to dismantle Iran's now-extensive military presence in Syria. Administration officials, however, have not made clear exactly how this objective can be accomplished, short of significant American "boots on the ground" in Syrian territory.
Russia has the potential to help on both of these fronts. Over the past two-and-a-half years, Moscow has significantly expanded its strategic footprint in the Middle East, thanks largely to its military campaign in Syria, and it is now seeking to reinforce and bolster this presence. The Kremlin is likewise committed to an expansive counterterrorism offensive against assorted Islamic radicals in the region, many of whom harken from the Russian Federation or other parts of the "post-Soviet space." Russia, in other words, is planning on staying in the Middle East, no matter what its officials may say publicly.
The Kremlin also seems to be shifting its position on Iran. True, Moscow and Tehran have long been major strategic partners, and over the past three years have drawn even closer as a result of their shared campaign to prop up the Assad regime in Damascus. Even so, Russian officials are beginning to view Iran's pervasive military and political presence in Syria as a distinct liability, and repeated military skirmishes between Israel and Iran in southern Syria have convinced the Kremlin to take a direct role in "de-escalation." Thus, in a break with prior policy, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has asserted that only Syrian troops should have a presence in the south of the country. Russian policymakers now say they have reached an "understanding" with Israel about the need to facilitate Iran's exit from the Syrian theater.
These commonalities give Presidents Trump and Putin plenty to talk about when they meet in Helsinki, Finland. Without compromising on other critical issues, a key priority for the White House will be to make Russia a more responsible stakeholder in Syria. Taking an active role in diminishing Iran's strategic footprint there, President Putin should be told, is a very good place to start.